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The sound of special places: exploring rock art soundscapes and the sacred

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - ARTSOUNDSCAPES (The sound of special places: exploring rock art soundscapes and the sacred)

Reporting period: 2020-04-01 to 2021-09-30

Can archaeologists study the human experience of the sacred among premodern societies? Is the sonic behavior of landscapes an essential component of religious emotion? These were two of the initial questions that inspired the ERC Artsoundscapes project. This project aims to systematically examine how sound may have contributed to the awareness of the sacred. We do this by assessing the sound of special places in the landscape. Although the supernatural is everywhere, particular places in the landscape are identified as being special for transcendental communication. The information about these places in prehistory has been lost, except where they were marked with rock paintings. Most rock art researchers consider rock art imagery as part of a community’s ritual expression and its motifs as representing mythological scenes and spiritual beings. Indeed, when available, most ethnographic accounts support this hypothesis. Sometimes these sources also refer to music in the form of songs and/or instruments played at rock art sites and occasionally the considerable importance conferred on natural sounds is also mentioned. In this respect, it is important to note that anthropologists have pointed out how sound and music have been systematically present in rituals. Furthermore, recent studies have demonstrated that many rock art sites are located in places with special acoustics.
How should archaeology study religion, ritual and emotion with respect to the sacred? For many years archaeologists explicitly avoided this question. Under New Archaeology/Processual Archaeology, a dualism was established between what could be studied, mainly the economy, technology and society, and the ideological subsystem, which could not. Nevertheless, from the mid-1980s some processual archaeologists, and many of their opponents within the post-processual movement, put religion and ritual back on the agenda. Since then, archaeologists have based their studies of sacred and ritual practices on several lines of evidence. What was the role of sound at particular places in the landscape that were perceived as being inhabited by, to use the animistic vocabulary, other-than-human agencies, such as helpers, deities and ancestors? The literature regarding the role of sound in emotion and the sacred can provide some answers and this is the innovative line proposed by the Artsoundscapes project. The project seeks to analyze sacred soundscapes and in particular to apply a rigorous methodology to a phenomenological understanding of the role of sound and emotion in the engagement with the sacred in the rock art landscapes of premodern Holocene societies.
Given these considerations, the project has five main objectives. The first is to thoroughly examine the acoustic properties and sonic behavior of rock art landscapes in selected archaeological areas around the world. The ultimate purpose of these tests is to characterize the potential of each soundscape for particular sacred ontologies identified as a result of a review of the literature. Secondly, it aspires to undertake a comprehensive analysis of the psychoacoustic effects in the selected archaeological rock art landscapes with two aims: firstly, to assess subjective impressions, especially those that may lead to altered states of consciousness or mystical states, and, secondly, to examine the psychoacoustics of particular acoustic properties, such as echolocation, augmented audibility and the intelligibility of distant sounds. In third place, Artsoundscapes endeavors to determine the neural correlates of the sounds recorded in the selected rock art landscapes to measure brain activity during listening and to identify whether brain activity correlates with that usually associated with altered or mystical states. As a fourth objective, the project seeks to undertake a thorough, multilingual literature review of ethnohistorical data and ethnographical records relating to the role of sound and music in sacred landscapes among premodern societies (i.e. pre-industrial societies). This review will allow a critical revision of known ethnographic variations related to sound and music in religious beliefs and ritual practices among hunter-gatherers and early agriculturalists. Finally, Artsoundscapes will approach an ontological understanding of sacred emotion and rock art soundscapes in prehistory.
Why is this research important for society? Archaeology makes history and assists in the creation of a sense of place. In an increasingly technified world, realizing that history is not only about material objects and monuments but also beliefs, relational flows, feelings and sounds is key to a more balanced appreciation of the past. Knowing about the past is related to social justice and society’s well-being.
The ERC Artsoundscapes project began in October 2018. The activities undertaken by research members have revolved around its main research lines. Regarding Research Line 1, the acoustical characterization of rock art landscapes, fieldwork began in the Russian Altai rock art area. The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic turned the focus on the Western Mediterranean, specifically on Catalonia, where the project is based. Some of the results of the acoustic characterization of rock art landscapes have been published and are freely available. The publications deal with soundscapes in the rock art of the Western Mediterranean and Baja California.
In Research Line 2, the psychoacoustics of rock art landscapes, a comprehensive analysis of the psychoacoustic effects in the selected archaeological rock art landscapes is being undertaken and two publications have been produced on psychoarchaeoacoustics. Work on Research Line 3 – neuroacoustics – only began recently and it is too early to provide any results. This is not the case however with Research Line 4 – ethnomusicology – for which the knowledge gathered by explorers and anthropologists in the areas of Siberia and California has been examined. The question we are trying to answer is why anthropologists rarely paid any attention to sounds and why they never cared much for music and, when they did, how did their classical music training interfere with what music they recorded and how they recorded it.
The study of sound is rare in archaeology. Several authors have attempted its study using intuitive rather than rigorous methods. In contrast, the Artsoundscapes project aims to develop a rigorous methodology for studying prehistoric soundscapes. The method for fieldwork analysis proposed by the Artsoundscapes project is the 3D Impulse Response (IR) combined with spherical pictures of original rock art landscapes. In particular, the methodology proposed in RL 1 is based on an omnidirectional condenser microphone; a high order ambisonics (HOA) microphone; a multi-track digital recorder; a loudspeaker; and a spherical camera.
The method of gathering acoustic data in rock art landscapes provides information not only to enable archaeologists and acoustic engineers to specify the sonic signature of prehistoric rock art landscapes but is also of use to psychoacousticians and neuroacousticians. The new methodology developed by the Artsoundscapes project allows the latter two groups of specialists to reconstruct sounds in the laboratory as if experiment participants were in particular rock art landscapes. For this a purpose-built Immersive Psychoacoustics Lab (immpaLAB) has been set up. In this facility it is possible to carry out experiments in which the participants experience immersion in a desired acoustic environment, for example, the rock art landscape in which the archaeologists have been working. This is done by rendering auditory stimulation with the sonic signature of selected rock art sites through a 3D-loudspeaker array. The aim is to explore the enhanced emotional dimensions and even altered states of consciousness triggered in the listeners by these singular spaces. The general aim of the Psychoacoustics RL is to explore the human auditory experience at rock art sites in order to better understand the role of sound in ancient societies’ way of life. Auralization is the process of simulating the experience of acoustic phenomena rendered as a soundfield in a virtualized space. Using this technique, psychoacousticians are able to measure the individual reaction and subjective interpretation that listeners attribute to sound and the affective responses evoked in them.
Levantine rock art. Colours treated with D-Stretch. Cabra Feixet, Catalonia, July 2020
Fieldwork in Adyrkan, Altai, in August 2019
Fieldwork in Catalonia, July 2020. Coco de la Gralla site. Acoustic test.
Session organised at the EAA (European Association of Archaeologists Annual Meeting) in August 2020
Immersive Psychoacoustics Lab (immpaLAB) funded by ERC Artsoundscapes project
Fieldwork in Adyrkan, Altai, in August 2019
Fieldwork in Kalbak Tash, Altai, August 2019
Levantine rock art. Cabra Feixet, Catalonia, July 2020
Work in progress. Fieldwork in Catalonia, July 2020